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Audubon’s Birds of America

Wednesday 20 October 2021

A new exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland will examine the artistry and legacy of one of the world’s rarest, most coveted and biggest books.

Published as a series between 1827 and 1838, Birds of America by John James Audubon (1785-1851) was a landmark work which achieved international renown due to the epic scale of the project and the book’s spectacular, life-sized ornithological illustrations.   

Audubon’s Birds of America (12 February – 8 May 2022) will showcase 46 unbound prints from National Museums Scotland’s collection, most of which have never been on display before, as well as a rare bound volume of the book, on loan from the Mitchell Library. This exhibition is a unique opportunity to see so much of Audubon’s work in one place.  

The four volumes which make up Birds of America consist of 435 hand-coloured prints. The book was the culmination of Audubon’s ambition to paint every bird species in North America, and is celebrated for its extraordinarily animated, dramatic and detailed illustrations. In order to accommodate life-sized birds, the book was printed on paper which was almost 1m long. Even then, some larger species had to be posed in contorted positions in order to fit them onto the page.    

Where his predecessors and contemporaries illustrated birds looking stiff and unnatural, Audubon was pioneering in his depiction of scenes from nature, pinning birds into realistic poses he had observed in life and painting on the spot.  

He is traditionally celebrated as the quintessential American woodsman, adventurer and naturalist, who identified over 20 species new to science. His paintings of the natural world are some of the most famous in the history of art and natural sciences, and his portrait hangs in the White House. 

Audubon’s story, however, is full of contradiction and controversy, and the exhibition will look at both the legend which built up around him and the more complex, problematic realities. He profited from the ownership of enslaved people and showed disdain towards the abolitionist movement, aspects of his story which have been overlooked until recently. His scientific standing is also disputed, with accusations of completely fabricating some species and he certainly made errors in his identification of birds.  

The exhibition, which is supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery will also explore Audubon’s links with the scientific and artistic community in late-Enlightenment Edinburgh, where the process of publishing the book began. He visited Edinburgh six times, including research visits to what is now the National Museum of Scotland itself. The exhibition will bring the story up to the present day, looking at the conservation status of some of the species featured in Birds of America.     

Mark Glancy, exhibition curator, said:  

“Birds of America is one of the most beautiful and famous books in the world, and the story of its creation is extraordinary.  Most people have only seen digital copies, so this lavish exhibition gives visitors a once-in-a generation opportunity to view so many of the prints together in one place and appreciate the scale and ambition of Audubon’s “Great Work”.  Audubon was, and remains, a contradictory and controversial figure and the exhibition will examine the myths and the reality behind this American icon.”  

Supported by players of People's Postcode Lottery

Admission: £10 adults, £7.50-8.50 concession. Entry is free to National Museums Scotland Members and children under 16.  

Ends  

Further information on exhibition and images from: Bruce Blacklaw or Alice Wyllie, Press Office on 0131 247 4165/0131 247 4288 or email b.blacklaw@nms.ac.uk and a.wyllie@nms.ac.uk  

Notes to editors  

  1. National Museums Scotland is one of the leading museum groups in the UK and Europe and it looks after collections of national and international importance. The organisation provides loans, partnerships, research and training in Scotland and internationally. Our individual museums are the National Museum of Scotland, the National Museum of Flight, the National Museum of Rural Life and the National War Museum. The National Museums Collection Centre in Edinburgh houses conservation and research facilities as well as collections not currently on display.  

  2. Bheireadh Oifis nam Meadhanan eadar-theangachadh Gàidhlig den bhrath-naidheachd seachad do bhuidhinn mheadhanan bharantaichte. Cuiribh fios do dh'Oifis nam Meadhanan airson bruidhinn air cinn-latha freagarrach.  
  3. People’s Postcode Lottery

    People’s Postcode Lottery manages lotteries on behalf of 20 Postcode Trusts. People play with their chosen postcodes for a chance to win cash prizes. A minimum of 33% from each subscription goes directly to charities and good causes in Britain and internationally. Players have raised more than £800 million so far. For details of the charities and good causes which are promoting and benefitting from the lottery draws, please visit www.postcodelottery.co.uk/good-causes/draw-calendar

    It costs £10 a month to play and winning postcodes are announced every day. The maximum amount a single ticket can win is 10% of the draw proceeds. For details, please visit www.postcodelottery.co.uk/prizes

    New players can sign up to pay using direct debit by calling 0808 10 9 8 7 6 5. New players who sign up online at www.postcodelottery.co.uk can pay using direct debit, debit card or PayPal.

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Header image: Detail from a print depicting Carolina Parrots from Birds of America, by John James Audubon. Image © National Museums Scotland

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